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  • Heidegger on (In)finitude and the Greco-Latin Grammar of Being
  • Richard J. Colledge

Joan Stambaugh programmatically opened her influential text, The Finitude of Being, by insisting that “[t]hroughout a lifetime of writings, despite some fairly radical changes of perspective, Heidegger always consistently maintained that being is finite.”1 As a general starting point such a characterization is broadly justified, for (as the first section of this essay will survey) it points to a key theme in the basic orientation of Heideggerian thought. Nevertheless, the situation is far from straightforward, and in what follows I argue that Stambaugh’s claim needs to be nuanced in two significant ways. One of these necessary qualifications has been noted previously in the scholarly literature, though the other has not received the attention it deserves.

The first of these qualifications is one that Henri Birault famously pointed out decades ago 2 and that Stambaugh herself eventually indicates in her book’s conclusion. 3 This concerns Heidegger’s insistence that the finitude of Sein 4 needs to be understood in the context of a radical project to overcome the whole metaphysical polarity of finitude/infinitude5 as such. As will be seen, this aspect of [End Page 289] Heideggerian thought (which becomes more explicit in his later work, even if Birault is right that it is present from the start) involves a rejection of both infinitude and finitude as they have been traditionally understood. Some key Heideggerian texts on this theme will be surveyed in section 2 below.

However, the major contention of this essay (developed in sections 3 and 4) is that a second important qualification needs to be made, one that is continuous with but separate from the first, and which is perhaps explicable only on the basis of a full appreciation of the first. This concerns the striking counternarrative evident in several later Heideggerian texts—dealing with the grammar of the word Sein and Anaximander’s notion of ἄπειρον—that involves a qualified openness to, and even an embrace of, a certain sense of infinitude. What these infrequently attested texts reveal are some telling tensions and ambiguities in Heidegger’s position on this question, as well as moments in which Heidegger—contrary to received scholarly wisdom—enthusiastically frames his own thought as a thinking of the infinite, understood in an Anaximanderian sense. Taken together, these texts suggest that Heidegger’s mature understanding of (in)finitude is more complex and textured than is generally appreciated.


A Philosopher of Finitude

Before the major argument can get underway, it is first important to clearly acknowledge Heidegger’s most widely attested position on the matter at hand—his embrace of finitude and general suspicion of infinity—and to clarify his reasons for this stance. In doing so, I seek to name some of the major pillars of his approach against which the discussions that follow will be oriented.6 [End Page 290]

Most generally, Heidegger’s position is a function of his programmatic rejection of metaphysical grounds or founding absolutes. This lack of absolute grounds itself flows from the parameters of his fundamentally “alethiological” approach to the question of Sein. When Heidegger rejected much of Western metaphysics, he thereby bracketed the whole complex of questions and concerns within which the quest for such a ground made sense. In focusing instead on Sein qua the happening of ἀλήθεια, finitude comes to the fore. Beings are never fully or simply disclosed, for the process of unconcealment is always and everywhere accompanied by concealment. If this is a ubiquitous theme in Heideggerian thought, early and late, so too is the constant emphasis on the belonging together of Sein and Dasein, Ereignis and man, and of their keynote interdependency. There is no unimpeded noontime light within infinite horizons in Heideggerian thought, only varying clearings in the forest. Shadows, ambiguity, finitude.

In Heidegger’s early works, the theme of ontological finitude is linked largely to his thinking about facticity and temporality. In Being and Time, Dasein, as being-toward-death, is finite not simply in that it will reach a point at which it “just stops”—that is, it is chronologically finite—but rather insofar as it “exists finitely...